Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Grab Your Walking Stick – Journey into the Haiku Novel with David G. Lanoue

By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters 

In October I had the honor and fun of being on a critique panel at our Haiku Society of America Southeast Region’s “Ginko Haikufest” in Atlanta. I’ve been running a series on my blog featuring our speakers and their haiku, with more to come!

One of our special guests was poet, Xavier University of Louisiana professor, Issa scholar, author, and current HSA president David G. Lanoue. (Might I add that my late-arrival Friday evening welcome to this group–the first time I’d met any of these folks in person–was to be handed by said president a cup of bona fide North Carolina moonshine brought by our NC contingent of amazing poets?)

On Saturday, in my typical carpe diem fashion, I plopped down in the empty seat next to David for our sessions. Our weekend, organized by HSA Southeast Regional Coordinator Terri L. French, was called “gazing at flowers”–in honor of haiku master Issa’s 250th birthday. Our down-to-earth president presented “Issa at 250 – A Celebratory Reading,” in which he shared many of his favorite Issa poems. (He’s translated thousands; you can find his faves in his book, ISSA’S BEST: A TRANSLATOR’S SELECTION OF MASTER HAIKU – KOBAYASHI ISSA)

Still reading? Good. We are getting around to fiction, I promise. If you’re new to haiku, you might not know that David G. Lanoue has been dubbed “the creator of English-language haiku fiction” (Randy Brooks). I’ve had his HAIKU GUY series on my “to read” list since I first stumbled into haiku a few years ago. I’ve finally started to remedy this deficiency by reading the first, with the others waiting in a happy stack.

HAIKU GUY greeted the world in 2000. In his own words, the author offers this description of the genre:

Haiku novel is a literary composition that combines prose fiction and haiku. A descendent of traditional Japanese haibun, haiku novels differ from haibun in one important way. While the prose sections in traditional haibun resemble journal writing, the prose in a haiku novel comprises a structured work of fiction. Both haibun and haiku novel might relate the author's life experiences, but a haibun appears as a collection of episodic journal entries, whereas a haiku novel is shaped as a work of fiction. (David G. Lanoue)
If this is sounding a wee bit technical, have no fear and plunge on in. Lanoue weaves in and out of the stories of two poets on a haiku journey–one, Buck-Teeth, a young student of Issa (Cup-of-Tea) in 19th-Century Japan, and the second, a contemporary writer/journeyer based on the author’s own life in New Orleans. To further mix things up, characters from the two storylines visit each other’s settings in cameo appearances. Then there’s the “chorus” of the modern poet’s writing group–some of these passages had me literally laughing out loud, causing my dogs to wonder what all the ruckus was about.

Writers of any genre will relish the occasional commentary about how the author’s own writing is progressing–and there’s more than one claim that he’s just “the Buddha’s stenographer.” His fellow writing group members don’t let him get away with that.

But early on in the novel, we might recognize some of these writerly feelings:
How effortless, light, and buoyant my writing has become! As in Buck-Teeth’s fantasy, I’m terrified that all the ink on this growing mound of paper on the tabletop might rise into the air and float around my kitchen like crazy, blue spaghetti, until a strong breeze sucks the whole, swirling mess out the open window…blue gibberish vanishing in blue sky.

It could happen.
In addition to the stories, Lanoue offers up helpful advice about how to read, and how to write, haiku. These nuggets come in such an unassuming, non-pedantic voice you won’t even know you’re learning some of the finer points of haiku. (Award-winning Atlanta poet and teacher Tom Painting assigns this book to his junior high school aged students, and they like it. Really. I asked them! You should see the haiku they come up with, which I’ll be featuring monthly on my blog starting next week.)

In the novel, Buck-Teeth comes up with a few haiku of his own during his brief sojourn in New Orleans. Here from the mid-section of the book:

Buck-Teeth wrote this haiku upon leaving Dreamland:

somebody’s little sister
Bourbon Street

I made sure to pick a full moon night for Buck-Teeth’s visit to our age, for such moons have a way of making the creative juices of haiku poets gush.

Can you resist a book with chapter headings such as “The Writing Group Contemplates Suicide,” “Buck Teeth Visits New Orleans Disguised as a Tourist,” or “The Sex Chapter”? No. Didn’t think you could.

This unconventional book offers a good, long look into the haiku sensibility. Don’t ask me to define that, but I recognize it sometimes and even occasionally live into it, a few moments, on a good day anyway. There’s the letting go of ego/living in the moment/wrestling with love and meaning and the important things, but without heaps of sentimentality, and with a sly and unflinching sense of humor. Great stuff.

Now, I’ve only shared a mere dewdrop full of tea, and you’re probably thirsting for a whole cup. Please visit David G. Lanoue’s terrific website and continue the journey! And, circle back to my own author blog this Friday (December 6), when David will be my guest as I host Poetry Friday this week.

Wishing you a holiday full of “haiku moments” and inspiration!

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012), THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL (2013) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. That haiku struck me as quite profound. I've never heard of a haiku novel before; what a fascinating idea! Thanks for sharing, Robyn!

  2. Hi, Rachel6! I'd never heard the term either until I starting splashing around in the haiku world. I'm looking forward to reading the rest in the series. Thanks for your thoughts!